New book recounts Nebraska minister controversial role in gay marriage debate.

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April 25, 2011 - 7:00pm

On September 14, 1997 Reverend Jimmy Creech,senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, performed a covenant service, equivalent of a wedding, for two women. In a response unique in the denomination's history, the United Methodist church put him on trial. He was not convicted and kept his position in the Church. A few months later Creech co-officiated at another covenant service, this time for two men. At a second Methodist church trial his clergy credentials were revoked.

In a new book, Adam's Gift, Creech shares the story of the remarkable events leading up to and after those trials.

In an interview for an NET News Signature Story, producer/reporter Bill Kelly spoke with Jimmy Creech about the reasons for the controversial choices he made before over same-sex marriage became part of a national debate. Creech is now retired and spoke from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina.

BILL KELLY (NET News) In North Carolina, in 1990 was the first commitment ceremony that you conducted for a same-sex couple. You write in your book, Adam's Gift, that you didn't see that as controversial at the time. Some might find that as kind of strikingly na ve.

JIMMY CREECH Well, I don't take offense at all at being called na ve. There are a lot of things that apparently, I find to be just fine and dandy and just and fair that a lot of folks don't agree with me about.

It seemed to me at the time in 1990, that if I were going to affirm an individual that it made logical sense to me that I would also affirm that person's loving and committed relationships. An individual is not an isolated, separate entity. I've been doing weddings all of my ministry and I love doing weddings. It's one of the highlights of my ministry to sit down with two people who really love each other and want to commit to one another to make a family and to create a home together and share and support for one another.

Jimmy Creech when was still head pastor at First United Methodist Church in Omaha. (photo courtesy Mr. Creech)

In 1998 the NET News program STATEWIDE profiled Jimmy Creech on the eve of his trial. Here's that report.

Creech had performed a dozen commitment ceremonies, like this one, for same sex couples prior to arriving in Nebraska. (photo courtesy Mr. Creech)

KELLY Your memoir includes some insight into how you as a heterosexual member of the clergy came to address your own views on homosexuality. This was a period when the AIDS epidemic was especially public and for many, very frightening. That appears to have altered your world view.

CREECH Well, one of the things that happened is I became involved with an HIV AIDS support group here in Raleigh, North Carolina and got to know many gay men who were infected with HIV and got to know them on a deeper level beyond just the whole abstract conversation about sexuality and all. To get to know them as individuals and to know their lives and know what they love and what they're afraid of and what their hopes are and their dreams. To have that kind of intimate involvement in their lives really had a profound impact on me. They shaped my thinking.

At the same time, the way society and particularly, governmental leaders were ignoring the epidemic, afraid of it, and denying people who were infected with HIV the kind of support and care that they deserved, mainly because of the connection with homosexuality. That also was a profound impact on me.

KELLY You were recruited by the (District Superintendent of the United Methodist Church) to serve at the First United Methodist Church in Omaha. In part that was because of your very public stance on equality for gay and transgender people. Still, when you were approached to conduct a covenant ceremony in the church itself, did you pause to consider if Nebraska was really the right place to openly defy the Methodist Church?

CREECH It was an interesting coincidence of events. When I was approached to consider going to the First Church as its senior pastor, they knew everything about me. The church didn't know anything about me. The congregation was told that the bishop was appointing me. (Around the same time) the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in 1996 passed legislation to prohibit clergy from celebrating what the church calls homosexual unions. I told (the church officials in Nebraska) that I disagreed with that strongly, that I felt like it was institutional bigotry and that I would not abide by it, I was not going to be complicit in the persecution of lesbian/gay and bisexual people. And I was told well, we'll just sort of deal with that when the time comes, but we want you to come anyway. And I said as long as you understand when I'm asked to do a wedding or a holy union or a covenant ceremony for a same sex or same gender couple, I will do it. I did not want anybody surprised. I want everybody to understand. I wasn't going to let the fear of controversy stop me from doing what I had a responsibility to do.

KELLY The couple who were involved in that ceremony were unique in a number of ways. What can you say about them now? They have remained private all these years.

CREECH The primary reason the couple remained private was one of the women had a daughter whose father was often trying to keep from having visitation rights with the mother. And if they were publicly identified the couple was afraid that the father would have more leverage to get a ruling from a judge to deny the mother visitation rights. So we really protected them quite well and the congregation protected them very well.

KELLY What did (the two women you married in Omaha) say to you about the importance of having an official ceremony within the church?

CREECH Both of them grew up in religious homes and were very active in their respective church traditions. One woman was a Mormon. The other was Roman Catholic. Their faith communities were very important to them. When they finally came to terms with their sexuality and came out their faith communities were not accepting of them and actually were very overt and forcing them out. So they spent a period of time in sort of exile from religious community, any religious community.

The reason they came to First Church was the congregation of First United Methodist Church in Omaha adopted a statement of purpose that included being open and welcoming to lesbian/gay/bisexual and transgender people. They were aware of that and wanted to be a part of a more heterogeneous congregation and so they came to be a part of First Church.

For me, each of them had traveled separately very difficult and painful journeys. But when they came to First Church, they had overcome the pain and they had found a sense of belonging, a place of belonging, a sense of self-affirmation. And they were able to love another person and commit themselves.

You look at your faith community as the place where those important things happen. It was very natural for them to want to have this celebration of their love and the commitment of to one another and the creation of a family in the context of their faith community.

KELLY That marriage has since dissolved?

CREECH It has unfortunately. Of course, no matter how strong and well-intended the commitments are in the beginning, marriages, as we know, don't always succeed.

KELLY That covenant ceremony deeply split the church in general and your congregation specifically. There were a lot of hurt feelings and friendships ended. While you feel strongly about the cause, do you feel you could have handled the situation in a way that was less hurtful for the congregation?

CREECH I don't know that I could have. I see the cause of the pain and the separation being the prejudice against lesbian/gay and bisexual and transgender people that exists in our society. There were folks who didn't understand what it meant to really include (them) in the church in a complete and full way. Of course, they were hurt because it went against what they believed when I did the covenant ceremony.

Yes, I could have said, I won't do it because there will be some people hurt but I also knew that that would simply be a way of continuing the persecution of lesbian/gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their families and loved ones. That's a great injustice that needs to end. It's going to be difficult for those who are resisting, for those who don't understand, but we have to move forward.

KELLY There are a good many Christians, who still feel not only homosexuality is a sin; that marrying couples is an abomination. Is there any reason to believe that very many minds were changed by your act?

CREECH I see what I did as a very small part of a much larger movement. I think that it's clear, when you sort of step back and look at the movement from a larger perspective that we are truly moving toward a day when to be gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender is going to be unremarkable. It's not going to be a label people wear anymore. We're going to all see ourselves as a part of a larger human family, with great diversity, but at the same time, with unity. And that's going to happen because a lot of people in a lot of places are doing small little things like I've done. I'm confident that even in my lifetime, I'm going to see this movement truly fulfill its purpose and we can celebrate that as a victory, not just for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, but for all of society, all of humanity, and for the church.



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